Transgender people in sports

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The participation of transgender or transsexual individuals in competitive sports is a controversial issue. Opposition to transgender or transsexual individuals competing in sporting events generally focuses on hormonal factors (such as higher testosterone levels among trans women), the socialisation of young men and women, and physiological factors such as height and weight. Insisting trans athletes compete against athletes of the same biological sex, sex verification testing, and access regulations have been used with the aim of ensuring fair competition.

History of transgender athletes in competition

Historically sport has been seen as a male domain.[1] The masculine perception of sport was first moderated with the rise of women's sports and further challenged with the gradual acceptance of gay sportsmen.[1] A third departure from this traditional view came from trans-athletes, who did not fit into the culturally accepted binary gender definition of male and female.[1]

Renée Richards

An early high-profile transgender athlete was tennis player Renée Richards. Already a promising male tennis player, Richards underwent gender reassignment therapy in 1975 and started playing in women's tournaments a year later. Her discovery and the resulting media frenzy sparked protests.[2] After she accepted an invitation to a warm up tournament for the US Open the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the United States Tennis Association (USTA) withdrew their support and 25 of the 32 women withdrew.[3]

The USTA and WTA introduced the Barr Body test, which identifies a person's sex chromosomes. Richards refused to take the test and was banned from the US Open.[2] She filed a lawsuit in 1977 claiming that her civil rights were violated. The judge agreed that the Barr body test as the sole determinant of sex was "grossly unfair" and ruled Richards legally female.[4] She competed in the 1977 Open, lost in the first round and retired four years later.[2] At the time the ruling in Richards case did not lead to major changes outside of tennis.[4]


In 2003, a committee convened by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Medical Commission drew up new guidelines for participation of athletes who had undergone sex reassignment. The report listed three conditions for participation. First, athletes must have undergone sex reassignment surgery, including changes in the external genitalia and gonadectomy. Second, athletes must show legal recognition of their gender. Third, athletes must have undergone hormone therapy for an appropriate time before participation, with two years being the suggested time.[5]

It was not until 2004 that the IOC allowed transsexual athletes to participate in the Olympic Games.[6]

In 2015, the IOC modified these guidelines in recognition that legal recognition of gender could be difficult in countries where gender transition is not legal, and also that requiring surgery in otherwise healthy individuals "may be inconsistent with developing legislation and notions of human rights".[7][8] The new guidelines require only that trans woman athletes declare their gender and not change that assertion for four years, and demonstrate a testosterone level of less than 10 nanomoles/liter for at least one year prior to competition and throughout the period of eligibility. Athletes who transitioned from female to male were allowed to compete without restriction. These guidelines were in effect for the 2016 Rio Olympics, although no openly transgender athletes competed.[9]


The first out transgender person to make a US National Team was Chris Mosier who in 2016 qualified for Team USA in duathlon.[9]

In 2017 Mack Beggs, a teenager from Texas that was transitioning from female to male, was forced to wrestle in the girls state championship despite wanting to wrestle against boys. This was due to state sport regulations requiring athletes to compete alongside athletes of their birth gender. Some opponents say the testosterone prescribed as part of his transition gives him an unfair advantage and made it unsafe for the other wrestlers.[10]


At the heart of this controversy are concerns that transgender women would outperform cisgender women due to their more masculine body structure, socialisation as males and higher testosterone levels. The intense scrutiny of transgender athletes has focused on trans women because it is generally assumed that transitioning for transmasculine individuals would not confer a competitive advantage.[11]

Sports organizations have sought a test for sex verification to ensure fairness across all sports. This began in the 1940s with "femininity certificates" provided by a physician. In the 1960s, visual genital inspections were used to confirm gender, followed by chromosomal analysis to ensure that all athletes had an XX or XY chromosomal makeup. These tests were all designed to ensure that athletes were only allowed to compete as their sex, but mostly resulted in the exclusion of intersex athletes.[12]

More recently,[when?] testosterone levels have become the focus and, at the same time, new guidelines have been sought that would allow successfully-transitioned athletes to compete.[7]

Testosterone and athletic ability

People who oppose transgender women competing in women's sports say that they are given an unfair advantage over cisgender women due to their testosterone levels, and different muscle and fat distribution. Testosterone regulates many different functions in the body, including the maintenance of bone and muscle mass.[13] It is also argued that athletes who transition to a woman after puberty will have a greater muscle to fat ratio compared to female athletes.[14]

However, the use of estrogen supplements and testosterone blockers (or physical castration via sex reassignment) cause a decrease in muscle mass, bone density,[citation needed] and oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This leads to a decrease in strength, speed, and endurance.[15] According to Joanna Harper, a competitive runner, scientist, and transgender woman, every athlete has advantages and disadvantages. The greater height that a transgender woman may have gained before transitioning may be an advantage on the basketball court but it is likely to be disadvantageous to a gymnast.[16] Eric Vilain, a professor of human genetics at UCLA and a consultant to the IOC medical commission, stated: "There is 10 to 12% difference between male and female athletic performance. We need to categorize with criteria that are relevant to performance. It is a very difficult situation with no easy solution."[17]

In secondary education

United States

States vary widely on participation of transgender children in sports and which locker room those students should use. Advocates in favor of allowing transgender children to participate in sports based on their preferred gender point out the known benefits of participating in sports and the psychological well-being of the transgender children.[18] Opponents emphasize the same issues of an unfair advantage of larger size and strength in trans women, plus the safety of cisgender children, both in competition and in the locker room.[19]

Notable trans athletes

See also


  1. ^ a b c Anderson, Eric; Travers, Ann (2017-05-25). "Introduction". Transgender Athletes in Competitive Sport. Routledge. ISBN 9781315304250. 
  2. ^ a b c Pieper, Lindsay (2017-05-25). "Advantage Renee?". In Anderson, Eric; Travers, Ann. Transgender Athletes in Competitive Sport. Routledge. ISBN 9781315304250. 
  3. ^ Birrell, Susan; Cole, Cheryl L. "Double Fault: Renee Richards and the Construction and Naturalization of Difference". Sociology of Sport Journal. 7 (1): 1–21. doi:10.1123/ssj.7.1.1. 
  4. ^ a b Pieper, Lindsay Parks (2012-04-01). "Gender Regulation: Renée Richards Revisited". The International Journal of the History of Sport. 29 (5): 675–690. doi:10.1080/09523367.2012.675202. ISSN 0952-3367. 
  5. ^ "Statement of the Stockhold consensus on sex reassignment in sports" (PDF). 2003. Retrieved August 25, 2016. 
  6. ^ Sykes, Heather. "Transsexual and Transgender Policies in Sport". Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal. 15 (1): 3–13. 
  7. ^ a b "IOC consensus meeting on sex reassignment and hyperandrogenism" (PDF). November 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2016. 
  8. ^ Cyd Zeigler (Jan 21, 2016). "Exclusive: Read the Olympics' new transgender guidelines that will not mandate surgery". Retrieved August 24, 2016. 
  9. ^ a b Lauren Steele (August 2, 2016). "Chris Mosier First Trans Team USA Member - Rolling Stone". Retrieved August 25, 2016. 
  10. ^ Reuters (2017-02-26). "Transgender teenage wrestler Mack Beggs wins Texas girls title". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2018-01-13. 
  11. ^ Marelise van der Merwe (August 22, 2016). "Sport and gender: Can of worms, open". Retrieved August 25, 2016. 
  12. ^ Ruth Padawer (June 28, 2016). "The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes". The New York Times. Retrieved August 25, 2016. 
  13. ^ Anawalt, MD, Bradley; Kirk, MD, Susan; Shulman, MD, Dorothy. "Endocrine Glands and Types of Hormones". Hormone Health Network. Retrieved 11 May 2015. 
  14. ^ Sykes, Heather. "Transgender and Transsexual Policies in Sport". Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal. 15 (1): 3–13. Retrieved August 24, 2016. (subscription required)
  15. ^ Joanna Harper (April 1, 2015). "Do transgender athletes have an edge? I sure don't". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 25, 2016. 
  16. ^ Matilda Edwards (July 28, 2016). "Testing, hormones, hatred: What it's like to compete as a transgender athlete - Hack - triple j". Retrieved August 25, 2016. 
  17. ^ Tim Layden (August 11, 2016). "Caster Semenya controversy 2016 Rio Olympics". Sports Illustrated. Retrieved August 25, 2016. 
  18. ^ Katy Steinmetz (July 16, 2015). "The Case for Allowing Transgender Athletes in Youth Sports". Time. Retrieved August 25, 2016. 
  19. ^ Sandhya Somashkhar (October 2, 2014). "A question for schools: Which sports teams should transgender students play on?". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 25, 2016. 
  20. ^ "Transgender teen wins regional wrestling title despite attempt to ban him from competing - SportsDay". 18 February 2017. Retrieved 18 April 2017. 
  21. ^ Luke, Savannah (31 March 2016). "People Profile: Balian Buschbaum". Retrieved 18 April 2017. 
  22. ^ "Eerste transgender ooit in internationale volleybal". March 2016. Retrieved 18 April 2017. 

Further reading

Acknowledged[by whom?] law and regulation research papers regarding policies around transgender athletes in competition:

  • NCAA Inclusion of Transgender Student-Athletes
  • Including Transgender Athletes in Sex-Segregated Sport
  • Transgender student-athletes and sex-segregated sport: Developing policies of inclusion for intercollegiate and interscholastic athletics
  • Hormone Check: Critique of Olympic Rules on Sex and Gender
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